Lately I’ve been reflecting on the place of the role that knowledge of background material plays in interpretation. In particular I have in mind the issue of Jewish exegetical traditions and interpretation of certain NT passages. One example that comes to mind is Paul’s reference to the rock following the Israelites in the desert in 1 Cor 10. On the surface the reference seems quite strange; but if one knows of various Jewish exegetical traditions about that rock Paul’s reference becomes more understandable, even if it remains striking.
The point I want to raise is the necessity of such background knowledge for understanding Scripture. On the one hand, my own work has revealed the value of understanding such exegetical traditions for illuminating Paul’s own use of the OT. But on the other hand I firmly believe in the perspicuity (i.e., clarity) of Scripture and want to affirm that those who lack the opportunity of graduate education are entirely capable of understanding God’s Word.
Perhaps the answer lies in asserting the general clarity of Scripture in its essential message and content while maintaining the value of background studies as providing a richness and depth to that essential message. One of the questions I was asked in my dissertation defense was something along the lines of “If Paul’s use of Isaiah in Galatians is not essential to understanding Galatians, what is the value of your research?” The question was asked in a good spirit and in no way attacking. My answer (one that I am still thinking through) was that although Paul’s basic message in Galatians is understandable even to those who do not notice the repeated allusions and echoes of Isaiah, the depth and richness of that message cannot be fully appreciated without recognizing Paul’s profound engagement with Isaiah (esp. chs. 49-54).
So what say you?